What We're Talking About When We Talk About Rape Culture

Many people don't understand what rape is unless it involves screaming NO and seeing external evidence of abuse—and still we doubt the word of the survivor. So let's define our terms.
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Traditionally, conversations about sexual assault involving women, have been passive, stilted, or altogether hushed. Due to the current exposé of Hollywood film executive Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby before him, these discussions are becoming far more than vocal—they are now evolving into movements. Ten years ago, writer and activist Tarana Burke started the me too Movement for young women affected by sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation, namely “young women of color from low wealth communities.” Her goal has been to empower victims through empathy.

In the past week, actress Alyssa Milano launched a social-media version, launching it with a tweet that encouraged victims of sexual assault and harassment to write “Me too” in their status updates. Her call to women inspired a rash of #MeToo post and hashtags to spread across Twitter and other social-media platforms. On a superficial level, #MeToo amplifies, by the multitude, the tyranny of sexual violence experienced by women. It also creates solidarity among empathizers as well as sympathizers. Twittersphere erupted with support and validation: “Don't be ashamed of what happened to you. They should be ashamed of what they did to you. The attention should be on them not you. #metoo”  @najwazebianlice tweeted.

At the seat of the matter, it implores both women and men to reckon with an underlying problem of rape and sexual assault—dialogue that both eschews and euphemizes sexual violence. We live in a culture where rape and sexual assault needs to be explicitly and legally defined. If #MeToo seeks significant change, it must really be the catalyst that establishes the terms and conditions of sexual violence, and it is women who should be collective determiners because we know all too well what that shit looks like—yes, #MeToo.

#MeToo was an instant trigger for myself and others. For every Twitter and Facebook thread with a declaration, there were retweets of allegations that were rebuffed, denied, and silenced. I remembered Nate Parker's rape controversy and the ignorance surrounding it. The actor's denial and omission of guilt, for his sex crimes committed against a fellow college student, was a common cop-out. The tragedy that she did not have mass support, that she will not participate in #MeToo: Like so many women who report rape, her claim fell on negligent ears—ears that do not clearly understand the dynamic of sexual violence. I empathize with her murdered spirit— she took her own life—as I enter head-space that is all too familiar to so many women who live their lives, dying in slow motion, unable to negotiate psychological trauma associated with sexual violence because their voices have been snuffed. Silence and ignorance can no longer be standard reconciliation.

Discourse around rape and sexual assault continues to be remiss. Historically, it is a safer space for accused heterosexual men than for victimized women, as if chauvinism and patriarchy does not shroud them enough. When women point fingers at male attackers, they are often met with side-eyes and skepticism and theories of self-induced violence —and every other folly that drives society’s collective reasoning. The benefit of the doubt is more often given to the accused. Patriarchy is well established. It is evinced in everyday life, media, and in occurrences, involving egomaniacal Donald Trump’s admitted pussy-grabbing and even more and worse allegations waged against him; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment toward Anita Hill; celebrities Woody Allen’s and Bill Cosby’'s sexual misconduct and rape charges. In each case, the accuser’s character was compromised and/or questioned. Meanwhile, the accused remained off-the-hook and in power: Trump is now our president; Thomas has a seat on the bench of the highest court in the U.S.; the legacies of Allen and Cosby arguably remain intact. When footage revealed R. Kelly allegedly urinating on a pubescent girl, apologists sung tenor, alto, and soprano in his defense. And really, I can’t decide what’s worse: being pissed on or shit on by society's nonbelievers. Neither one of these culprits has been held accountable, on any culpable level, because the masses give very few fucks when women's bodies are at risk.

Rape statistics cannot be fully realized because such a gross attitude around rape culture persists. On average, 39 percent of rapes go unreported. According to Sexual Assault and Rape Statistics (SAARS) 80 percent of all victims are white, but minorities are somewhat more likely to be attacked. Umm, yeah, women of color are more prone to sexual assault and less likely to report. For every one Black woman who reports her rape, at least fifteen others don’t even whisper that shit. And if Black lives don’t matter, be assured sexual violence projected onto Black women won’t matter either.

A primary factor of rape culture is our understanding of what rape looks like. The concept of rape is blurred, if it does not involve a fist and black eyes; if it does not express a resounding NO; if it does not swing back—or if a woman acquiesces. Society's disavowal of sexual assault, harassment, and rape is so deeply rooted in the marrow of this tradition—an indignant, unapologetic tradition that justifies men's failure to exercise moral judgment. We have a custom that lacks discernment vis-a-vis cognitive dissonance, especially when we sympathize with sexually violent men for being anything other than sexual predators (excellent fathers, good brothers, successful filmmakers, funny comedians, and men of deep faith, do rape). We stick to conventions which consign men’s refusal to recognize rape cues and allow violators like Nate Parker to firmly state and possibly believe an encounter was unambiguously consensual— which is the most problematic assumption of all. The other danger is women like Mayim Bialik, who because of her own self-esteem issues, subscribes to age-old misogyny, to the idea that women put themselves in harm's way by being conventionally beautiful, by having sex appeal. In her New York Times op-ed, she affirms her choice to dress modest and refrain from flirtation are "self-protecting and wise." Bialik is not alone in her thinking. In an essay titled "Provocative Dress and Sexual Responsibility," Jessica Wolfendale, an associate professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University, cites a swarm of backward thinkers whose beliefs suggest that provocatively dressed women distract men and incite rape and sexual assault.

If society continues to fuel irresponsible fuckboy—and girl philosophies, then it too is participating in sexual violence against women.

Sexual assault, defined by the Department of Justice, is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

Rape is described as "the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

I feel obliged to, informally and pointedly, detail the nuances and subtleties that further constitute sexual assault and rape—the actions men don’t quite get. And since there is no time like the present for an exodus, leading away from cultural ideas of sexual violence—allow me the honor of enlightenment. 

If you are a 17-year-old uncle who rubs your fully grown genitals around, on, and/or in your niece’s 4-year-old privates—that's sexual assault.

If you are a teenage family friend who enjoys tackling 7-year-olds, pinning them to the ground, stealing humps or copping feels off her non-existent breast—this is sexual predatory behavior and this is assault.  

If you stalk little girls up and down Woolworth aisles, and your pelvic region makes contact with her 8-year-old bottom—this is predatory and this is assault.

If you are a fourth-grader who chases classmates around the schoolyard, during recess, to grab their behinds—you are a sexual predator.

Should you trap girls in elevators, corner them in stairwells, put your hand up their blouse, and grind your genitals against theirs—this is sexually predatory and assaultive behavior.  

Perhaps, you are 16 and you beg a 13-year-old girl’s pants off, play tug-of-war with her Hello Kitty undies, then pound her virginity into extinction—you’re a rapist.

You find your fingers, probing around your sister’s best friend’s underwear, while she’s asleep. That’s rapey, alright.

Your uninvited tongue dives down a woman’s throat, after a friendly night out—violent.

You overindulge in hyper-imposed hugging to feel up on a woman’s body—creepy, invasive, predatory. It's harassment and assault.

You sexualize young girl’s and women’s physical development or the lack thereof—this is sexual harassment and possibly sexual violence.

You slut-shame women for their sexual freedom and provocative dress—this is sexual harassment and possibly sexual violence.

After hours of aggressive penis propositioning, your come up is a mercy fuck (because more than likely a woman had no way out of the situation)—you scammed your way into getting sex. This is rape.

Your unwelcome hands slide across a woman’s bare shoulders and arms on a warm, sticky summer day (or any day)—that’s sexual violence.

Should you find yourself gazing at a woman on the Bronx-bound No. 2 train and it compels you to masturbate and ejaculate in her direction—you are a sexual predator.

If you mix opioids with coffee to disable victims, if you coerce actresses to bathe and massage you to keep their A-list status, if you stake out schools for statutory sex, if you grab women’s crotches just because, if you and your friends take advantage of an inebriated woman—you suffer from somnophilia, you stole, you are a sick, you are disgusting. And though, you may be a father, brother, a comedian, a president, a musician, and man of deep faith, you are also a sexual predator and a rapist, too.

 

Ida Harris is a writer and an assistant editor for Black parenting website My Brown Baby. When she is not critiquing Black art, culture, and society, she is creating beautiful art while listening to Trap music—preferably Future. Her articles have appeared on My Brown Baby, Black Enterprise, HuffingtonPost, Blavity, and Medium.
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Ida Harris